‘Cult of Constitution’ radicalizes strict constitutionalism

With the coming political debates of this year on topics ranging from gun control to gay rights, there will be voices on both sides of the debating that will claim that their position is the more constitutional.

We hear this word thrown around a lot: constitutional. In today’s day and age the word has become synonymous with all that is right and moral. This is a very dangerous position to be in.

It is a sad truth that many Americans cannot differentiate the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the Ten Commandments. Indeed, there is a large section of the population that views all three documents with the same religious zealousness, as if Jesus Christ himself had descended into America in the 1780s and forged the Constitution out of stone. When the words of the Constitution are such an object of worship and adoration, it becomes difficult to have any meaningful dialogue and progress as a society.

The United States Constitution is an impressive document. It consists of roughly 4,500 words that have guided our country for over 200 years. It is insane, however, to believe that a document shorter than some college essays I have written can possibly provide guidance on every possible political issue that may come up for the rest of time. What does the Constitution say about online identity theft? In the section of the Bill of Rights that discusses citizens’ rights against unreasonable search and seizure, what does it say about how motor vehicles should be treated?

Strict constitutionalists claim that the ability to amend the Constitution is sufficient to account for the changing circumstances of society. But the vast majority of amendments that have been passed have not dealt with new standards, morals and technology that have developed in America. Instead, laws are passed and it is up to the judicial branch to figure out how each law fits into the confines of the Constitution.

This may be news to some Americans, but the framers of the Constitution were not foolproof fortunetellers who got together to envision the perfect utopia. They were actually a lot like today’s politicians. They came from very different backgrounds and disagreed on a lot. There were some Founding Fathers who wanted the word “God” included in the Constitution, while others did not. Some preferred a more powerful federal government while others preferred more powerful state governments. Some of the founders envisioned a small-government utopia while others hoped for a medium-sized to large government. Much of what is debated today was debated back then as well. They bickered, argued and fought with each other (sometimes physically on the floor of their legislative houses).

The Founders were not saints, nor were they gods. In fact, they had trouble agreeing with each other on many issues. Some politicians today fall back on the Constitution because in its current form it supports their side. While this is not admirable, it is at the very least sensible. But some treat the Constitution as a holy infallible document. I imagine it must be somewhat comforting for those people to give up all responsibility for actually running the country to the words of men who have been dead for two centuries.

We are a nation of many people with many different views of the world. We cannot rely completely on a 200-year-old piece of paper to run our country for us. Just because something is constitutional does not mean it is right. Determining whether something is constitutional should not be the end of the debate, but the beginning. In the end we must ask not what is constitutional but what is right. After all, when the Constitution was written, slavery was perfectly constitutional.